David MottonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Tow cars’ written by David Motton
One year ago, news broke of the Volkswagen emissions scandal. VW had cheated emissions tests in the US, and the company soon admitted that some 11 million vehicles worldwide were affected. That figure included cars from the VW Group's other big brands – Audi, Seat and Škoda.
The 'dieselgate' saga threw a spotlight on diesel cars in general as well as Volkswagen Group models. With higher NOx and particulate emissions than the equivalent petrol cars, had the public been duped into buying diesels? Were the benefits of low carbon dioxide emissions oversold, and the dangers of harmful local pollutants ignored? What factors should you take into consideration when buying your next tow car?
In the days after the story broke I remember hearing of many cancelled orders, and Volkswagen's reputation took a serious beating. In some quarters there were dire warnings about the future of VW, and of diesel cars in general.
Some 12 months later, have these predictions proven well founded? Not according to analysis by our colleagues on sister magazine What Car?, who have examined the resale values of Volkswagen Group cars, and found that there has been a surprisingly small change compared with pre-dieselgate figures.
Overall, VW models retain 42.21% of their original value now, down 2.7% compared with just before the scandal broke. The depreciation of Audi models is also faster than last year, dropping from retaining 47.58% of their original value in July 2015 to 44.72% in June this year, a fall of 2.86%.
Seat and Škoda have seen smaller drops, with falls of 0.46% and 0.43% respectively. Perhaps buyers don't associate the Spanish and Czech brands so closely with their German parent company.
These falls should be put in the context of what's going on across the market as a whole, with an average dip of 2% in used car values across all manufacturers. So VW and Audi are barely dropping further than the market average, while Seat and Škoda's used car values are outperforming the market in general.
Overall, across all car brands, the average residual value for a three-year-old car and/or one with 36,000 miles is 41.69%. So even after the drop, VW and Audi cars still depreciate slower than most.
What Car? has backed up its analysis of used car values with a survey of car buyers' attitudes with some 4000 respondents. Some 59% said they were just as likely to buy from VW brands as they were before the scandal.
Steve Huntingford, What Car?'s Editor, says: “What this reflects is the fact that, although VW has cheated and undoubtedly still has a job to do to retain the trust of its customers going forwards, it still makes cars that consumers want to buy.”
I think the picture isn't quite so rosy. Resale values may still be healthy, but if 59% of car buyers have no beef with VW that still leaves 41% who do.
Predicted secondhand values and online surveys are all well and good, but what really counts are new car sales. And the latest figures show consumers have longer memories than What Car?'s analysis suggests.
In the year to the end of August, Volkswagen sold 129,298 cars. In the same period in 2015 it sold 143,178. That's a drop of almost 10% in a market that's up nearly 3%.
And what of diesel sales? Has the slump some predicted come about, with diesel buyers switching to petrols and hybrids? In a word, no. In the year to August, 48% of all new cars sold were diesel-powered. That's a scant 0.5% less than the same period last year.
What has concerned me is not so much whether VW would weather the storm, or if new car buyers would abandon diesel power for a different kind of engine. I've been more interested in whether Europe's proposed new standard for testing economy and emissions would be robust enough.
Soon after the VW emissions scandal hit, I wrote an article about the adoption of the Worldwide harmonised Light vehicles Test Procedures (WLTP) in Europe, scheduled for September 2017. This would, experts suggested, provide more realistic fuel economy figures than the current European tests, which routinely exaggerate the real-world economy of new cars. Most importantly, these lab-based tests would be backed by an on-the-road test programme, called the Real Driving Emissions (RDE) test procedure. This combined test regime would have prevented VW's 'defeat device' from working, as the discrepancy between the laboratory and on-the-road results would have made it obvious that something was awry (the 'defeat device' was only active in lab conditions).
The academics and emissions testers I spoke to were optimistic that a combined test regime would be approved, making it more difficult for manufacturers to cheat or even finesse the tests. However, earlier this year many of the European Union's biggest car producing nations pushed the European Commission hard to water down the proposals.
Fortunately the European Commission hasn't listened and the WLTP should be introduced this time next year as planned, and will be implemented alongside Real Driving Emissions testing. It should mean more reliable economy and emissions figures, and will make it harder for a scandal like dieselgate to happen again.